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Female Filmmakers in Focus: Bridgett M. Davis

A decade ago, memoirist, novelist, teacher, curator, and filmmaker Bridgett M. Davis thought her feature film "Naked Acts" had found its final resting place at the Black Film Center & Archive at Indiana University, where she had deposited the film's 16mm elements and ephemera, figuring it would live on solely as an artifact to be studied by academics. Independently filmed and  financed in the 1990s, the film, which follows a Black actress whose work on a Black independent film dredges up the unprocessed trauma she carries with her from her childhood being raised by a single mother who worked in Blaxploitation films, was a true labor of love and not a commercial success. In fact, despite being heralded by Variety as “fresh, funny and original,” the dramedy never even had proper distribution, playing just a handful of festivals. 

An academic herself, Davis thought it fitting that her film would likely have a legacy as a text studied solely by other academics. That is, until a DM on Twitter changed her mind and opened up a whole new life for her film. 

That pivotal DM came from Maya S. Cade, founder of the Black Film Archive, a living online register that showcases Black films made from 1898 to 1999 currently available streaming. Cade found the film elements during her residency as a research fellow at IU’s Black Film Center & Archive. After reaching out on Twitter, Cade worked as a consultant on the film's restoration and remastering by Lightbox Film Center at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, which was carried out in collaboration with Milestone Film. The new restoration, presented by the trailblazing Julie Dash, premiered at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam in February, has since played festivals and screenings around the globe, and will be opening theatrically on June 14th. 

For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Davis over Zoom about the film's restoration process, her creative goals with the film, the emotional work that goes into making such personal work, and the joys of its newfound life and audience. 

I know Maya Cade had worked quite a long time on this restoration. Let’s start with this revitalization of the film. I know it played film festivals and really had a whole new life.

It's amazing. It's beyond anything I expected. I knew who Maya was based on the Black Film Archive, even though I hadn't met her. I remember thinking,” Oh, wow, when she reaches the '90s, I hope I can let her know about my film.” Yeah, she was looking at films more historically, ones created from an earlier period of the 20th century and making her way through the decades. 

And the elements of this film were already at Indiana University, where you had deposited them, correct?

Yeah. 

How did that relationship come about?

I knew about the Black Film Center & Archive at Indiana University. I think it's the biggest in the country. So I had actually sent them a VHS of “Naked Acts” years ago. So they had the VHS copy. But honestly, the famous film laboratory DuArt reached out to me around 2013 or so, long after I had done the film, and they said to me, as they said to many filmmakers, that they were closing.

So come get your film.

Yeah. They said I needed to come and get my negative. That just sent me on a whole existential journey because I thought, “I can't properly preserve that negative. I don't know what to do.” But they were great. They were like, “Think about archives.” So, of course, the first archive I thought up was the Black Film Center and their archive in Indiana. So I reached out to them. And they were like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes!” They were so receptive right away. 

So luckily, a decade ago, I was able to put all of my elements there. All of it. The negatives and ancillary materials. I literally thought, okay, all's well, in the world, “Naked Acts” has found it – shall I put it this way? – final resting place. I thought it was great. I'm an academic. I love the idea that scholars can discover it and study it. That was my thought. I was quite happy with that. I had no vision of it having a life beyond that. So when I tell you, Maya’s DM on Twitter changed everything.

That's amazing. I know a few people had seen it prior to this restoration on your Vimeo. 

Yes. 

I think that's a wonderful way for filmmakers to keep the distribution of their film in-house. But there is something to be said for the broader reach that someone like Kino and Milestone can bring to your film.

For sure. I made my film so long ago. I shot it back in 1994. So, it didn't have a streaming version. It didn’t have a streaming life. I showed the film at a festival here in Brooklyn, Reel Sisters, back in 2018 to honor its 20th anniversary. The director of the festival said, “Bridgette, I can get this digitized for you.” So she did that for me. Then people were asking, “How can we see your film?” So I put it up on Vimeo. It's exactly what you said, it gave people a way to get to it, but if they didn’t know it exists. . .

Yeah, they had to be looking.

Exactly. 

In one of the presentations you did with Maya, you mentioned the video store in the film was your actual video store in Fort Greene.

Yeah. Video Basket. 

I love what you said about video stores being a communal space. I think you called it a healing space. In the film, a lot of Cicely's really big revelations are in that video store. How does it feel that you’ve kept that store alive? So many video stores are closed now.

I have to say, it's been really beautiful to talk to people like you, My own son who's twenty-four. I used to pick him up from school on Friday, and we would go to the video store, and would he pick up his videos for the weekend, right? Yet, my daughter, who's four years younger than him, has no memory of that. In that little bit of time, between the late 90s and the early aughts, things changed. So we were getting our DVDs, and then eventually it was streaming. So it is beautifully nostalgic for me. But I can also see how it's nostalgic for young adults. Like you remember those childhood experiences. So that makes me really pleased. It was an accident in a way because I was capturing a contemporary world. That was our lives. We were living as young people in the 90s. And suddenly, with the passage of time, capturing that nostalgia is speaking to all kinds of people. It's beautiful. It's really beautiful.

One of the things I noticed in the video store was at least a dozen films directed by women prominently in the frame, or at least you could see the titles--Lost in Yonkers,” "Danzón." It was really great seeing those little Easter eggs.

It was a little of both because it was an active business. We were allowed to shoot there in the middle of the night after they closed. So that was really what they had in the video store. But we thought as best we could about framing. We didn’t have a lot of extra time, but I would look through the lens and go, “Oh, wow, push that over a little bit.” You know, I would make sure Julie Dash’s film was right there. That was a little homage for me. So for me to come full circle and have her present my film for its new release. It's poetic for me. 

I love reading information in a frame. I just think it's such a wonderful way to me, it's something that film can do that's unique to its art form. Maybe that's because I come to it as a writer, so I'm literally reading and the larger concept of reading what's in the frame really matters to me. So yes, that was purposeful. We were doing this on the fly a lot of times. There were points when my DP was like, “We don't have time for that.” But, if I could pull it off I definitely was trying.

In that same conversation with Maya, you said that the idea for the film started with the question: If Dorothy Dandridge had a daughter and her daughter was Pam Grier, what would her granddaughter be? How would the facets of the way entertainment has changed be reflected through these Black women entertainers? Could you expand on how those questions led to the creation of Cece?

I started my novels in the same way because I came to writing first by writing fiction. By the time I started writing “Naked Acts,” I was a frustrated novelist because I hadn't been able to pull off a novel yet. I thought like a novelist and posing a question felt like the way to get into the world of a book. So, I did the same thing when I was writing the script. Also, we really didn't know yet who the daughter of Pam Grier would be. It was only the early '90s, right? So it was really a place of imagination. I thought it was great because I could really create her as I really feel she would naturally be and not be limited by any so-called facts. It helped generate these ideas about how we are so much a part of, not just our culture, not just our mothers and our grandmothers, but everything we're absorbing. It felt like a great way to give life to Cece. It was fun to do, too.

She's a fun character. She’s so closed in on herself emotionally, but she's so vibrant in the way she dresses. It’s almost like armor against opening herself up by being so bright.

Yep!

How did you come up with her looks? That red wig is so stunning. The minute she shows up in that, you know this is a character you want to spend time with.

People were like, “That's crazy!”

Oh, I love it. 

Yeah, I love it, too. I talked a lot with the costume designer. That was her first experience being a costume designer for a film. And I talked with the hair and makeup artist. We talked about how we could reveal Cece through her look. Yes, have her cover herself so she can begin to slowly shed. So you'll notice the wigs start to get shorter and a little less elaborate as the story goes on because I knew I would land on her natural hair. Her clothing gets a little more classic as the story continues. 

Many Black folks, Black women in particular, are really into defining themselves by their hairstyles and clothing as a way to say, “I'm here; pay attention to me.” But at the same time, it doesn't mean that they're always outgoing or extroverts. It can often be just what you described, this contrast. It's like, “I want to take up space. I want to be seen and at the same time. I'm not sure I'm allowed. I'm not sure I'm ready. I'm not sure how to do it. And so in the meantime, I'm going to adorn myself so that you see me before I am able to speak for myself.”

I think it's a really strong visual metaphor through her and that final scene. I also really loved the Turkish bath scene. Was that an homage to the scene in “Crossing Delancey”?

Remind me of that scene.

I think it's the same sauna, and Izzy and one of her friends are just talking about their dating woes. It feels like the sauna is a beautiful place for women to disrobe themselves completely and to be free. I think the scenes in both films reflect how sacred space like that can be in such a busy city like New York. Maybe you were both tapping in on that thought, which I think is lovely.

I love “Crossing Delancey,” too. I did see it. What year did it come out?

1988.

I was definitely in my consciousness. 

Was that the aim for setting a scene in the Turkish bath? 

It's such an iconic place. So I loved it. I've always thought about what an incredible space it is, just visually, in terms of a location where you could shoot, and then the location would be doing so much of the work for you. Originally, we had more expansive footage, where you saw more of the Turkish bathhouse, but what we were able to keep, I feel, still does give you a good sense of the place. And I thought, here's this moment where a friend can help her to just trust herself a little more in a genuinely safe space. Not a lot, just a little, right? Because we don't all reveal ourselves in big grand ways. 

I have always felt, in a bathhouse or sauna situation, a little self-conscious. I do think that, again, culturally, it's not necessarily something a lot of African American women have done traditionally. It's different now, but back in the day, when I was coming along, I didn't have those experiences until I was very much an adult. I still thought, “But we're going to take all our clothes off?” It always struck me that a lot of the white women I knew understood that, yeah, that's what you do. That this is a space where we don't have to feel judged. I admired that. I wanted to try my best to capture that sense of how it might be different. How Diana is a bridge. She is someone who is so comfortable and says to Cece that this is what we do in here. When you're a filmmaker, you're thinking about so many levels, and you're trying to make one thing do a lot of things. At least I am. 

And Diana is played by Renee Cox, the photographer and artist. 

Yeah.

How did she become involved in the project?

I have to tell you, it almost feels unbelievable. Except it's true. I met her at NYU. There was a big conference going on around Black film. It was big. It might have gone across two or three days. Everyone was there. It was incredible. I was standing around, and I met her. We introduced ourselves to one another. We started talking; I told her I was writing the screenplay and creating a character who takes nudes of Black women as a photographer. I said, “But that person doesn't exist, I don't think.” And she said to me, “That's what I do!” So she invited me to come by her studio and see her work. 

We began a friendship from that encounter, and I went into casting the film very soon after. Every woman I saw to play Diana did not quite work. Not right. Not quite right. You know? The casting director, by the way, was Jake-ann Jones, who plays Cece. She also cast my film, if you can believe that! She was saying to me, “You're turning down everyone. What's going on?” And I realized I wanted Renee. She had never acted before. 

She's so natural.

So natural. I remember saying to her, “Trust me. Just play yourself and it'll be fine.”

I think that's another way this film bridges all these different waves of Black art that were happening in the '90s. 

It’s amazing. You can't plan that. 

I feel like you were just really plugged in. I read that you learned how to make films at the Third World Newsreel. What is that program called?

It was a program for community filmmaking. They have a long history and incredible archives. They were meant to be this progressive institution that captured largely nonfiction newsreels about what was happening. They then began to train people to be filmmakers, largely documentarians, and people doing experimental work. So when I came along to take the workshop in 1991, I said I wanted to make a narrative film. They said I could try, but good luck with the continuity. They gave me the space and the tools. It was literally just a 10-month workshop for so little money. It's unbelievable. But it gave access to so much. I was a full-time professor already, so there was no way I could stop my life and go to film school. It taught me the means of production. It was the first time I was allowed to direct a short film.

Will that film be available to watch as well?

I've only done two shorts, but they will both be on the Milestone DVD release. 

I think Michelle Parkerson also did shorts with Third World Newsreel around the same time. 

And Cheryl Dunye. Several people went through the program. My professor in the program became the DP on “Naked Acts.” Herman Lew. Sadly, he passed away several years ago, but he was an extraordinary artist in his own right. I remember saying, “Herman, there was no way I'm doing this film unless you agree to be the DP on it. There's no other way.” And so he did it. 

Film is such an emotional art, and there's a line that the producer says to Cece: "Emotional work can leave you more exposed than taking your clothes off.” How did you feel putting all this emotional work into this film? 

Oh, my gosh, that is such a great question. That line meant a lot to me because I believe in the idea that somewhere, the screenwriter puts the line that matters the most to her in the mouth of one of her characters. So that was the whole point of the story. I gave it to Marcel to say. What I couldn't have anticipated was how meta the experience was. I was making a film where I was trying to show that these women's bodies so often get objectified and exploited, and yet they need to take control and determine how they're seen. At the same time, I'm putting these women on film, and they're sometimes self-conscious about it. 

In one example, Jake-ann Jones and Sandye Wilson, who played Winsome, were working out like crazy, like every day with a trainer. I was saying to them, “What are you doing?” And they're like, “Bridgette, we're going to be on film. Our bodies are going to be on film.” I said, “I don't want you to feel some way about that. That's the whole point of what I'm trying to say in the work.” They said, “It doesn’t matter. We're going to be on film. This is what we’re doing.” It made me wonder. How do I feel about that? I landed on this whole understanding that that was the complexity of it. It's messy sometimes. But if my intent is good, and it always was, I had no desire to do anything exploitive; I didn't want them to be uncomfortable in any way. And yet, we live in this culture. So, it was an emotional ride in so many ways. Even though it's a fictional story, it was so personal.

Do you think audiences today will have the same emotional response to the film's body positivity aspects? I feel that's one of the things that we still struggle with, especially in this country.

As you noted, I have shown this restoration around. It had a US premiere in Philly. People came up to me afterward to talk about it. When it showed in Rotterdam, this woman came up to me outside, and she could not stop crying uncontrollably, so she never got to say what she wanted to say to me. I have gotten used to that over the years of showing the film, but I had forgotten that impact. Also, I had not seen it with young people. So, someone in her twenties coming up to me like that told me that yeah, this still really resonates. Because that was what I was trying to address when I made the film. 

Also, when I was in Rotterdam, someone involved with the festival itself interviewed me, a young trans woman who said to me that she watched it with her friend, who was a trans man. They were also talking about how all the issues resonated with them. I thought in binary terms when I made this film in the early '90s. But to think that it has this resonance in a new way fills my heart with so much joy. Who wouldn't want that for their work? For its meaning to evolve, grow, and be valuable in our times? I was almost in tears when she told me that.

There are a lot of aspects of the film that still feel radical in terms of the way we even showcase sex in film today. I was thinking of the first scene with Cece and Joel (Ron Cephas Jones), and how she takes control of the situation and has him strip. And that he is actually excited by it! It's a very erotic scene, and joyful. I feel like a lot of scenes like that would not feel like a collaboration between the two people. Hopefully, good sex is a collaboration between two people. Has there been any reaction to that? 

There's always laughter when she says he has to take his clothes off and when he’s “Oh, is this some freaky feminist shit?”

Yeah, it's so funny.

I always say to folks that when you grab the means of production, you can dictate what gets seen. So much of the film, for me, was a reaction to and a response to what I had gotten so tired of. Whether it was always seeing these women gratuitously stripping. Like in every sex scene you can imagine in a film, you're going to see her body. Even when you know you don't need to. I'm not saying you shouldn't; I'm just saying most of the time, it was unnecessary. So I thought, well, not this time because I'm making a film. That’s also the way I felt about what we call the homeboy scene when they're just walking down the street, and this guy rolls up on them. 

Oh, yeah, that scene is great.

I mean, women get that constantly. Still. And you never can really respond because you're afraid of the reaction. You don't want to escalate the situation. You have to pretend to ignore or cajole the guy, and I thought, well, I'm making this film. Why don't I just use the position I'm in to say the things that ought to be said? Just flip the script, literally. 

I think it still feels radical today. To your point, I think a lot of filmmakers are still kind of afraid to just do that right. 

Making a film is unbelievably intensive, financially, emotionally, and physically, right? It’s time-consuming. Why would you compromise? 

Exactly. You spent three months on this film, right?

It's so crazy. She started production on September 1st, and it took us until early December to finish the shoot, even though it was probably only 12 days. I stopped production in the middle of the film to raise the money to finish shooting. 

That's amazing.

It’s crazy. I don’t know how we did that and how we kept everyone together. You know?

Yeah, you didn't lose anyone.

The production itself was intense, and then trying to finish it and then really hoping to get distribution. Not having that happen was really crushing.

Is this Kino release the first quote-unquote proper distribution this film has had?

Absolutely. I thought oh, this is what distributors do. It's amazing and beautiful and they are incredible, I must say.

You couldn't ask for a better distributor than Milestone and Kino combined. It’s like a dream.

They do incredible work. I knew about them, too, before they reached out because I had seen “Losing Ground,” and I knew that they had released it to the world. So, I already had great respect for them because “Losing Ground” was so influential to me, even though I had never seen the film—I had just heard about it. 

Its history spoke to you.

Yeah. I was inspired, and I decided that Kathleen Collins was my spiritual godmother even though I had never met her. And it was because of Milestone that I finally got to see her film. 

That restoration is so beautiful. I don't know how she captured those colors. That leads me perfectly to my last question. You've spoken very beautifully about Kathleen Collins and Julie Dash, but I was wondering if there are any other women who made films when you were making films or who make films today who you are inspired by or that you think readers should seek out.

I was impressed with Nancy Savoca. I remember when “True Love” premiered at Sundance. I loved “Dogfight.” I loved her career. I thought she was doing it. That's what I wanted to do. Just thinking about the women back in the day, sadly, there wasn't a lot. But I remember Mira Nair, same thing. Here's a woman of color doing this. I wouldn't miss anything she made. So I'm very inspired by her, too. And, of course, Julie Dash. And Claire Denis. Her work was exciting. When I saw “Chocolat,” I was like, you can tell this story your way. You don't have to fear the so-called rules or that voiceovers are cliche. These filmmakers reminded me I didn't have to stick to those rules. So they were instrumental because they were filmmakers, which I discovered before I started making my own film. Then a lot came along in the '90s and so on who I really admire. But those women were instrumental to me in the formative days of figuring out how to make “Naked Acts.”

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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